Ed Beckman, Certified Greenhouse Farmers
Ed Beckman, Certified Greenhouse Farmers

Rising demand for greenhouse-grown (sometimes called hothouse) tomatoes and a diminishing market for field-grown tomatoes have some growers and distributors mislabeling field-grown product as greenhouse grown.

Misrepresented products are now commonly found in supermarkets and in foodservice.

Certified Greenhouse Farmers, a trade association representing greenhouse growers in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., is advocating for a standard, enforceable definition for greenhouse-grown produce.

When a consumer wishes to buy greenhouse-grown produce, he or she should be assured that the product labeled greenhouse is, in fact, produced in a defined greenhouse under the highest standards for quality, safety and environmental performance.

Unlike certified organic, there is yet to be a standard definition for greenhouse production.

California is the most aggressive in defining greenhouse-grown tomatoes, having enacted labeling laws to prevent the marketing of tomatoes as greenhouse unless the product is hydroponically produced in an approved structure.

The terms greenhouse-grown and “protected agriculture” are often erroneously used interchangeably, but protected agriculture fruits and vegetables, increasingly grown in Mexico, are not hydroponically grown and the environmental and climate controls vary.

In many instances, the product is closer to traditional field-grown than greenhouse. The standards advocated for by Certified Greenhouse Farmers are far more stringent.

True greenhouse farming provides the opportunity for consistent year-round produce with greater protection against food safety issues because food is grown indoors hydroponically and is protected from animal and soil-born contamination.

Because there is no soil, there is no need for herbicides or soil fumigants — and the benefits don’t stop there. Fresh greenhouse-grown produce is more sustainable and uses less water than field-grown produce, and water may be recycled and recaptured.

In addition, greenhouses focus on prevention of pests by keeping them away to begin with, reducing the need for pesticides. Alternatively, greenhouse growers use biological controls, predatory insects and other controls whenever possible.

Protecting customers

Market share for greenhouse-grown tomatoes continues to grow. According to Nielsen Perishables Group, using scanner data, more than 50% of tomato sales in supermarkets are those packaged as greenhouse-grown.

Further, within the tomato category, greenhouse tomatoes on the vine are preferred by nearly one out of three shoppers, Nielsen found, representing the single highest tomato purchase, and continuing to grow at a rate well above the category.

Consumer demand for taste, quality and appearance is driving the growth.

While demand for greenhouse-grown tomatoes is increasing, the demand for field-grown tomatoes is declining.

Since 2007, the volume of field tomatoes, both regular and vine-ripe, sold in the U.S. has declined by nearly 30%, according to Nielsen.

The price paid by consumers for greenhouse-grown produce is over and above that for field tomatoes. In 2011, Nielsen says the average price paid by consumers for greenhouse round tomatoes was $2.70 per pound as compared to $2.31 per pound for field tomatoes.

The consumer seeking greenhouse-grown tomatoes pays a premium for a premium product. Where product mislabeling occurs, the consumer pays a nearly 40 cents-per-pound premium for what’s essentially a field-grown tomato masquerading as a greenhouse tomato.

Standard definition

Consumers seeking a greenhouse-grown tomato or other produce need some assurance the product they purchase is greenhouse-grown. The same can be said for the grower who makes significant investments in greenhouse technology.

Efforts are under way by Certified Greenhouse Farmers to establish at the state and federal levels an enforceable definition for hydroponic greenhouse produce that’s largely harmonized with that under consideration by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The definition defines greenhouses as:

  • a fully enclosed permanent aluminum or steel structure clad in either glass or impermeable plastic for the controlled environment growing of certified greenhouse/hothouse vegetables using together: computerized irrigation and climate control systems, including heating and ventilation capability; a soilless medium that substitutes for soil (under the greenhouse/hothouse); hydroponic methods; and Integrated Pest Management, without the use of herbicides.

Certified Greenhouse Farmers’ members all meet this definition, and our organization has an independent certification program in place, established under the direction of Scientific Certification Systems.

The SCS program provides independent validation that a greenhouse operation meets the definition.

As fresh greenhouse-grown produce continues to increase in popularity, now is the time to take action and define what greenhouse means.

While, in the spirit of continuous improvement, Certified Greenhouse Farmers and its standards will evolve, it’s critical that as an industry we develop a definition of greenhouse as it stands today. Doing so will not only protect the integrity of the process, but also safeguard customers and consumers who purchase products.

Ed Beckman is president of Certified Greenhouse Farmers, a trade association representing greenhouse growers who produce in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

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